I already have a BSc degree from an unknown school in outside the US. I have convinced a professor at a top US school to let me join his lab to work on a project that he will propose and conduct experiments at his lab. In return for learning and having access to the lab and working on a project, I am supposed to help the lab with programming their machines. However, there is no pay, that is my title would be "Volunteer". Therefore, I have to work in part-time or night jobs while working there (I have work permit).

Is this common in US, that is to work in a lab without getting paid and working on a part-time job outside the lab to pay for living expenses?

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    I know a bunch of friends, who had unpaid stays in US or Canada, usually for 1-3 month summer internship (technically (or rather: legally), I do not know if they where internships, or some other things). Sometimes there is no funding for non-US students; very often such short stays are beneficial mostly for the student (as it may be mostly time for learning techniques). In any case, it makes sense only when both sides consider beneficial, or at least, acceptable. – Piotr Migdal Mar 13 '14 at 12:08
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    @ff524 I assumed that he is pursuing MSc or on some kind of break/holidays. If, however, it happens instead of studying, I agree - it may be fishy. – Piotr Migdal Mar 13 '14 at 14:07
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    @ff524 Most of academic internships I know (whether paid or not) are based on learning by working for others (with various degree of freedom - from "here's your desk, look at these papers, look if you can push it further" to ones focused mostly on doing technical stuff in group's project). I don't see how the ratio of hours in in one's own project to contributing to other projects make it not an internship. – Piotr Migdal Mar 13 '14 at 14:51
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    @user-friendly Are you a student in a university right now? Unpaid internships are not uncommon for students, but for non-students they are unusual and often legally questionable. – ff524 Mar 13 '14 at 23:49
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    It sounds like you should talk to this professor some more about what you are going to do there, what he expects from you, and what you should expect to gain from the experience. (Also, talk to his current students when he's not around about what it is like to work there!) Good luck :) – ff524 Mar 14 '14 at 0:21

Your description of being "allowed" to do research work in exchange for programming work sounds off to me. Learning and running experiments for a research project proposed by a supervisor is basically the job description of a research assistant. It's work in its own right that people are typically compensated for in some way, not a reward for doing other (programming) work.

The arrangement you describe is not common, and it might also violate U.S. labor law. Under U.S. law, it's illegal to let someone work for you for free unless they meet specific legal requirements to be considered a "volunteer" or "intern."

"Volunteers" according to U.S. labor law are individuals

who volunteer their time, freely and without anticipation of compensation for religious, charitable, civic, or humanitarian purposes to non-profit organizations.

Your intent is clearly not religious, charitable, civic, or humanitarian in nature, so you do not legally qualify as a volunteer.

And to be classified as an "intern" you must meet the requirement that

The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.

(among other requirements). That is, the employer cannot expect to be dependent on your work for normal operations. I don't think you meet the requirements for an unpaid intern, though it's not possible to be 100% sure from your description.

The usual interpretation of the U.S. labor law is that an internship has to be part of a formal educational program (e.g., you are enrolled as a student and get credits for the internship, or write a report which you submit to your home institution) or a formal apprenticeship for it to be legally unpaid. In fact, if you search for unpaid internships in the U.S., you'll find that most listings say that only current students who can earn college credit are eligible. It doesn't say in your post that you are currently enrolled as a student somewhere.

This is not to say that there is no legal scenario in which a U.S. lab can allow you to participate in research there without paying you. (If the entire experience was supposed to be for your educational benefit - including the "help the lab with programming their machines" part - then my answer might be different.) But from your description, I don't think the scenario you describe is acceptable or normal.

I personally do not allow anybody to do work for my lab unless they are paid or doing a personal project (like a thesis) for which they earn academic credit. I've been told it would be legally problematic. For example: suppose I have an M.S. student working with me for academic credit. He graduates in May and has a job starting in September. I'm not allowed to let him keep working in the lab from May-September unless I can pay him (according to my university lawyers).

(Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer)

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    The university is very likely a non-profit organization, and scientific research could be considered a "humanitarian purpose". But I agree it's a stretch, and as far as I know it's not normal. – Nate Eldredge Mar 13 '14 at 6:45
  • @NateEldredge I think the lawyers at my university would LOL if I made a case for taking on unpaid research assistants as "humanitarian" volunteers :) – ff524 Mar 13 '14 at 6:53
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    First they would LOL, and then (when they figure out that you are serious) get really angry, because (at least in Switzerland) that sounds like the stuff that legal actions are made out of. – xLeitix Mar 13 '14 at 9:42
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    Why do you think that OP's situation is neither of a volunteer or an intern? – Piotr Migdal Mar 13 '14 at 12:07
  • @PiotrMigdal I updated the answer to elaborate on these issues – ff524 Mar 13 '14 at 15:20

I think that one of the main points is: do they need you? If they do, well, ff524's answer is true and honest. But if they do not, if their experiments already have all staff needed, if they gain nothing they need by letting you in and they will need to use some of man-hours to teach you and make sure you don't cause trouble, then it looks fair. You say you had to convince a professor. So it seems likely that he already had all the research assistants he thought he needed - and probably was also afraid you will use their time to learn (that's why you do it, isn't it?) so he wanted something in return.

It would be safer for professor and better overall for you if you could find a research assistant job where you are needed, not convince anyone to let you in where they seem not to need you.

  • I think they need him, this is because he got the offer. But they wan't/can't pay him. It seems for me as a trial period: if he works well, he will get a better offer. If he didn't, he will be already in the U.S., and thus he will have much better opportunities to get a wellpaid U.S. job. But... they know this. The real question is, if he want to go in the U.S. or not. If he want, I accepted this in his place. – peterh Mar 13 '14 at 10:37

IMHO the real question is that it is an exploitive offer, or it is a good possibility. My opinion is probably the second, although a little bit of exploitation can't be closed out, a research job in the U.S. can have this price.

It were an exploitive offer if you had (or will have) alternative opportunities to get an U.S. job. IMHO this isn't the current situation. If you want to get a real, paid U.S. job, first you should be already there. Out of the U.S. it is much harder (nearly chanceless), even if you have a work permit.

Your boss (professor) probably knows this, and it has to be a big chance, that you will get a much better (=paid) offer from him, or from any other, if you are already in the U.S. In this case it isn't an exploitive offer, but an opportunity, and you can see this volunteer-time as a trial period.

If you are sure that you will be able to get better offers, then you should reject it, but I don't think this is the case.

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    It's an exploitative offer, and if you want to be exploited, you can find an offer along these lines any day of the week. It's not a "never returning possibility" in any way. There are two other answers (both for and against taking the offer) that explain the thought process in much more detail. Yours is just not a good answer. – xLeitix Mar 13 '14 at 10:11
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    @xLeitix I extended/explained my answer. I hope, the downvote/delete request is already groundless. – peterh Mar 13 '14 at 10:34
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    I flag it as not an answer because the OP is asking whether this is common. He did not ask whether he should take the offer. – scaaahu Mar 13 '14 at 12:43
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    @scaaahu IMHO he explained clearly his dilemma, and his question goals clearly this dilemma. Your algorithmic interpretation greatly reduced your understanding. – peterh Mar 13 '14 at 13:18
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    @TaraB I accepted gman's edit, because I think he wants to help. But I also thank you your advice, I edited my answer further. Hopefully it will be enough to remove the downvotes and the deletion intent. – peterh Mar 13 '14 at 13:20

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